In a world full of “hacks” and “quick fixes”, there is something about managing anxiety that will always require a degree of effort, but thankfully without the need for lengthy training or studying. Remember that a quick fix is just that: a temporary measure, after which everything will revert back to what it was. Instead, it’s better to invest in yourself because you are your most valuable asset. As with many chronic conditions, the time learning how to manage anxiety is time well spent, and it does not necessarily require years to learn it.
Anxiety is just one of many emotions we experience in our lifetime and we can all decide to give it less attention to make space for healthier, more positive emotions. Erasing anxiety completely is probably impossible and, let’s face it, similarly to fear and the “fight-or-flight” mechanism, even negative emotions serve a specific purpose, which is mainly to alert us and protect us from danger. Anxiety is our brain’s coping mechanism to deal with the unknown, with a projected fear of something happening in the future or with a state of unease.
The first step is to understand, as much as possible, the origin of the anxiety: what could be its cause, what triggers it and what makes it worse or better.
What is anxiety? The NHS defines it as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe”. We typically experience anxiety before a big event, for example, an exam or a medical procedure. The mind is racing, envisaging different scenarios and outcomes, some of which that may never materialise. It is the sense of uncertainty that feels unsettling.
Anxiety becomes chronic when it occurs on a daily basis, whether there is an upcoming stressful event or not. It can be very debilitating and can affect many areas of life and, over time, the overall health if left untreated. For example, chronic anxiety can cause problems sleeping, speed up the heart rate (heart palpitations) or affect blood pressure, making you feel dizzy.
Unlike physical disabilities, mental health issues are not visible. When we suffer from anxiety we may even put on a “brave face” and keep smiling in the face of adversity, even though inside we are dreading each moment and doubting our abilities to get through the day. Sometimes, though, we may “slip” and our anxiety tendencies may come to the surface as obsessive behaviours or involuntary gestures like scratching or fidgeting. It takes someone who is very well trained in non-verbal signals to understand that a person is suffering from anxiety. We can all learn some self-soothing gestures to counter these non-verbal expressions of anxiety. One of the most soothing actions we can take when we feel stressed is to focus on our breathing, making it deeper and slower. In Sophrology there are many breathing exercises that can be done any time we feel the need to calm down and shift our thinking patterns. It is a dynamic relaxation technique that can really help during stressful times.
Anxious people tend to think the worst in any situation and may believe there is no cure to their condition. It is always best to speak to your doctor if you are experiencing feelings of anxiety, especially if they seem uncontrollable.
Usually one of the best ways to manage anxiety is to make some specific adjustments to your lifestyle: maybe it could be reducing or giving up stimulants like tea and coffee, taking up exercise or changing a workout routine and learning mindfulness techniques. The solution is very individual in each case and it could be a combination of different approaches.
Many doctors would recommend Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and some form of relaxation like yoga to help manage anxiety, after taking a detailed medical history. You can find a discussion on Sophrology and CBT in this interview for Living by Euronews. In a nutshell, it’s all about shifting one’s thinking, going from a negative perspective to a more positive and supportive one.
When anxiety is not related to a specific condition that requires medication, it can be tackled with specific techniques that rely on breathing, relaxation and visualisation.
Sometimes anxiety shows up as a panic attack – a temporary but frightful glitch with shortness of breath and heart palpitations. The main feeling is thinking you are out of control of the situation. Other times anxiety can develop into headaches and it may not be obvious to see the link between the two. The solution is to learn different techniques to help calm down when the first symptoms of anxiety start to appear and then trying to reduce the frequency of attacks, or, ideally, remove them completely. It is worth remembering that anxiety is a response mechanism and we can choose our response to an event mindfully.
Mindfulness to Manage Anxiety
Mindfulness practices are often recommended to help manage anxiety. They teach us to unlearn behaviours that can negative effects on our well-being and replace them with ones that will support us in our daily life.
Mindfulness doesn’t need to be complicated – it’s as simple as focusing on your breathing, using your tummy instead of your chest to take in the air, and slowly letting it out. It is a very effective exercise and the beauty of it is that you can practise it anywhere and any time you need to feel more grounded.
One of the ways you can use mindfulness in daily life is by learning Sophrology exercises. Starting with abdominal breathing, you then add movement, for example by tensing and releasing muscles as you breathe in and out. This works on the mind/body connection, focusing on the task at hand instead of worrying about the future.
When we breathe from our diaphragm in our tummy instead of higher up from our chest, the breathing will lengthen and produce a relaxing effect on the whole body. For example, during a panic attack, you tend to take short and fast breaths from the chest, feeling like you are drowning. By changing the pace and location of the breath, moving it down to the belly and slowing it down, you are also telling your brain that everything is fine, there is no danger and normal life can resume.
Doing a body scan also helps to anchor your thinking to each and every muscle, as it takes all your concentration to get the body to relax, bit by bit.
Taking a Mindful Break
Taking a mindful break is easier than it sounds: it doesn’t require travelling to a remote destination (and, nowadays, even checking into a flight can be stressful!) or sitting still emptying the mind of all thoughts for an hour. The good news is that you only need a few minutes to access an instant sense of calm. Sure, it may take a while to learn the technique but once you have become familiar with it you will enter a state of relaxation really quickly. It may take you only one or two Sophrology sessions to become familiar with the technique and enjoy its benefits. Listening to the audio description of each exercise is also very useful.
You may be familiar with the concept of a ‘body scan’: it’s a relaxation exercise shared by many Eastern and Western practices where you mentally zoom in on each part of the body, asking it to relax. In Sophrology, which is a blend of Eastern and Western traditions and practices, you can also combine a body scan with a ‘tense and release’ exercise: first, you breathe in, tensing all the muscles; then, as you breathe out, you let go of all the tension, asking your body to relax and letting go of all the tension. You can find this technique in the BeSophro Online Course.
Sophrology: Your Secret Tools to Managing Anxiety
The Guardian called Sophrology mindfulness’ dynamic young cousin, hinting at the fact that this technique has been around for almost 60 years, making it relatively new compared to ancient meditation practices like Zen Buddhism. It also describes how Sophrology adds the extra dimension of movement to mindfulness, integrating body sensations with thought processes. Because Sophrology is the “study of consciousness in harmony”, as envisioned by founder Professor Caycedo, there is a lot of scope for self-development and self-awareness work. By knowing ourselves more we are better equipped to confront different types of situations in life, keeping a calm frame of mind.
The secret to managing anxiety is about accepting we go through different emotions, either positive or negative, and to remain non-judgemental towards them.
In the book The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology, we talk about Sophrology as being your “superpower”: it gives you a toolset of relaxation techniques that you can deploy when you need to draw from your inner strength. It is exactly when you feel anxious that you need all the support you can get, including looking into yourself and realising how strong you are. Sometimes you forget how far you’ve come, how many challenges you have dealt with successfully and how many brave decisions you have made. The most important thing is to break the cycle of anxiety when it hits and try as much as possible to change your thinking patterns. A good way to do this is with the exercise that we call “The Bubble”.
After reaching a state of relaxation, visualise that your whole body is surrounded by a bubble: you choose how small or big it is, it’s colour or colours, whether it’s transparent or opaque. The bubble is there to protect you, so anything that worries you stays outside of it. Inside the bubble is your happy place where you feel safe and calm. You can access this feeling any time you need it, even when there is no anxiety in sight. Just enjoy the feelings and sensations, the presence of your body and of your breath. It’s nice, isn’t it?